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Is Your Neighborhood Toxic? It’s More Likely if You’re Poor or a Minority

Hundreds of polluted sites, many in low-income areas, are not being cleaned up, partly because state turned work over to private contractors

toxic wnyc
Credit: Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC

Agent Orange, the chemical used to clear the jungle during the Vietnam War, was made in New Jersey. It’s now at the bottom of the Passaic River and buried under Newark, entombed in cement.

For 150 years, New Jersey manufactured chemicals and products that became familiar fixtures in homes: charcoal and lighter fluid, plastic, guns and silk. It’s the job of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that New Jersey’s industrial past isn’t affecting the health of residents today.

But an investigation by WNYC finds most of the state’s poorest residents are living near a contaminated site with no plan in place to clean it up. And it’s not entirely clear whether anybody even knows with certainty what the risks are.

WNYC’s findings

According to an analysis by WNYC’s Data News Team, 89 percent of New Jerseyans live within a mile of a contaminated site. Most of those sites are in the process of being cleaned up, which can take years.

But our investigation found 1,464 of the state’s 14,066 known contaminated sites don’t have any clean-up plan in place. Many sites have sat orphaned and polluted for years, and they are disproportionately found in low-income communities.

+74 percent of residents who live below the poverty line in New Jersey are living within a mile of a contaminated site with no plan in place to clean up the contamination, compared to half of residents who are not below the poverty line.

  • 79 percent of the state’s Hispanic population and 75 percent of the state’s black population lives within a mile of a site with no clean-up plan, compared to 42 percent of white residents.

Months ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the DEP, told WNYC that the sites with no clean-up plan were mostly abandoned properties like old gas stations and former dry cleaners where the state couldn’t find the owners.

But WNYC went through the list and knocked on doors, and we found open, functioning businesses and institutions — including a state prison, hospitals, police and fire stations, churches, and schools -- all of which have no plan in place to clean up contamination.

“This is exactly what we said was going to happen,” said advocate Ana Baptista. She grew up next door to a steel drum factory in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood and now is an environmental policy professor at The New School. “Years ago people were screaming at the state that there were these loopholes.”

The state is no longer responsible for overseeing most of New Jersey's contaminated sites.


State distances itself from responsibility

In 2006, the state learned that kids in South Jersey were exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury at their daycare center, which had been allowed to open in an old thermometer factory.

The DEP admitted it couldn't keep track of all the contamination in the state, and in 2009 the state Legislature voted to outsource the work to private contractors in an effort to clean up contaminated sites faster.

Now, private contractors called Licensed Site Remediation Professionals investigate contaminated sites and determine how they get cleaned up. The DEP is no longer involved in the clean-up unless it becomes aware that a site is posing an immediate health risk.

Advocates like Baptista say the privatized system, at best, makes for patchwork oversight of public health and safety. “Instead of putting more funding and resources into the state to handle these cases and oversee them, they completely shifted it to a privatized system,” Baptista said. “Here we are years later, doesn’t seem much better, and it’s also left behind this issue of accountability.”

The DEP said sites that still don’t have a clean-up plan are considered low risks, because of the nature of the contamination and its proximity to people and water supplies. And the agency said it's tried to get these sites to hire a clean-up contractor. It's reached out by phone and email 69,000 times since 2009, the agency said.

But WNYC found city and state officials weren’t even aware they were operating in sites with known contamination. “We are not aware of any known contamination,” said Phillip Scott, director of engineering for the City of Newark, where WNYC found two police stations with contamination from old underground oil tanks and no one hired to investigate. “I would assume that DEP would be required to make us aware of this.”

Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark was supposed to hire a cleanup contractor to investigate and start a clean-up plan by Jan. 6, 2014. Maple Avenue Elementary in Newark was supposed to hire one by May 7, 2012.

WNYC checked and found neither school had retained an LSRP to deal with their contamination — until November 20 of this year, four days after WNYC asked why they hadn’t. Both public schools are run by the state and made the DEP’s list because of soil contamination from old oil tanks.

Mark Pederson, the DEP assistant commissioner for site remediation, is not concerned, though. He said sites that still haven’t hired a contractor are not posing a health risk.

“I want to assure you that as best as we can, we’re identifying what are the sites, what’s known to be there and is there potential impact,” Pederson said.

If there is a potential for health risks, Pederson said the agency steps in.

“If I don’t have a party willing to do the work, and there’s a potential human exposure, we have public funds to do that. And I do not hesitate,” he said.

But the agency has been wrong before. And it doesn’t always step get involved in time. Some sites that the state identified as low risk have become immediate threats over time.

“Is there a potential that there’s a site in the state of New Jersey that I don’t know about? Absolutely,” Pederson said. “And could there be an impact that I don’t know about? Absolutely. But I’ve got a process to deal with that when it happens.”

Lurking hazards

That process, for New Jersey resident Modesto Vieira, involved installing air filters.

Vieira moved to Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood from Portugal in the 1970s and bought we he calls his “dream home.”

No one told Vieira his house was built on the site of a former lighter fluid factory. In fact, the Department of Environmental Protection said homes were never supposed to be built there.

And in 2013 the agency became aware that residents on Vieira’s entire block had been breathing in toxic, cancer-causing fumes for 12 years.

There’s now an exhaust pipe that starts under Vieira’s garage and runs along the side of his house. It’s sucking up toxic fumes from the soil and shooting the fumes into the air.

“It was like a gassy smell, and we couldn’t figure out what it was,” Vieira said. “But ever since they dug the holes in here the air has gotten better and I don’t feel the headache as much.”

It’s a temporary fix. The groundwater under Vieira’s home is still contaminated. And the contamination is spreading. It moved a block over, and now the state it testing the block next to that, Lentz Avenue. That’s where Kathleen Grey-Rodrigues lives.

She got a letter from the DEP in October stating that there may be toxic fumes in her home.

“In my home that I’m in every day, breathing,” Grey-Rodrigues said. “When I got that notice it scared me. I wanted to run. And I love this house. This is my neighborhood. But I don’t want to be breathing on a home that’s on toxic land.”

Cleaning up contaminated sites is expensive. And everyone WNYC spoke with — developers, owners of contaminated sites, the DEP — said sites don’t usually get cleaned up until someone buys the property.

Grey-Rodrigues says that leaves behind low-income communities where the land isn’t considered valuable.

“We pay taxes,” says Grey-Rodrigues. “OK, some more than others - yes, I know that. But the government is the big guy. They have to do the right thing. I don’t care how costly it is.” Mark Mauriello, who was DEP commissioner before Gov. Chris Christie took office, agrees that low-income communities are left behind.

This story is part of Dirty Little Secrets, a series investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today, and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State and support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to CIR.

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